How one captures a memory is of particular interest in Miguel Gomes’ Tabu – a charming and formally aggressive film that inspires spells of hypnotic arrest. While unfamiliar with the F.W Murnau’s 1931 film of the same name, Gomes’ picture does invert Murnau’s general two-prong structure– two well placed title cards are swapped with one another, providing a pastiche of conceptually dense yet disarmingly playful ideas. In equal measures, Tabu can provide sequences of unrivaled sensuality and romanticism yet at times purposefully relish in the mundane. Despite a somewhat frustrating initial approach, Tabu is a marvel of technical proficiency with an astute idea of how one captures the process of thought and the irresistible power of nostalgia.
Tabu dwells on two truths: the blunt mundane activity of contemporary society and the overwhelming ecstasy of passionate love. The manner in which Gomes illustrates the two ideas is remarkably effecting, as one portion of his picture aims to achieve nothing more than capturing the dryness of day-to-day existence. Following a woman named Pilar (Teresa Madruga), Gomes provokes the simple living of an aging woman in Lisbon. Regular visits to the theater and obtuse conversations with her decrepit neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral) shape her daily activities. It’s only when Aurora, on her deathbed, requests the companionship of a man that the film begin to register a pulse. It’s not to say Gomes’ stylistic tendencies aren’t clear throughout the film. Shot beautifully in black and white by cinematographer Rui Pocas, Tabu displays an immaculate display of images that linger even as its material begins to catch up.
Undoubtedly, it’s Gomes’ intent. The unremarkable life that Pilar brings her to a nugget of history that serves to construct Tabu’s second half. From here, a narrative unfolds of dizzying effect. Told entirely through narration, Tabu becomes something entirely different. Here, the audience lingers on images of Aurora’s background. A tale of passionate love is delved into. Gomes’ stylistic flourishes come full circle as he addresses the way in which people recall their memories. Scenes play out in fragments where actors speak but no actual dialogue is uttered – instead, it’s brought to life by a forlorn lover’s words. It comes together wonderfully, adding a rich thematic backdrop to much of Pilar’s previous narrative while unraveling a completely new and inspiring narrative redirection.
Arguably, some of Gomes’ artistic decisions register as a bit arbitrary – scenes involving the two lovers looking at clouds felt particularly out of place, even as it adds to the picture’s arresting charm. While some have been a bit dismayed by Tabu’s rejection of colonial aspects of the time period (it’s something the film does not seriously broach until the end of its runtime), it perhaps perpetuates another truth that most would be more inclined to reject – the acceptance of social injustice in the face of selfish passion. The fact that Tabu actually presents this succinctly within its vast thematic intent is a small wonder – and in many ways, Tabu itself is a small wonder of a film.